Category Archives: Istanbul

Istanbul: Leaving


So, finally, we reached our last day in Istanbul. Checking out of the second AirBnb, we headed towards our last place, a small boutique hotel near the Bosphorus.

What a view!

I’ve stayed in a great many AirBnBs, and this was certainly my favorite. Great view, cheap, huge, and with a good location.

Street near our AirBnB

A short walk away, we visited the Museum of Innocence. I’d purposely remained in the dark about this museum. All I knew was that it got good reviews, was close by, and had been put together by the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Alex and I had read some of Pamuk’s works before arriving in Turkey. There are a lot of them, and they mostly seem to feature nostalgic memories of Istanbul and Turkey in the 60s and 70s – which actually was and remains a pretty exotic place to Americans.

Inside the Museum of Innocence

I loved the museum, which took the form of a renovated 4- or 5-story brownstone completely filled with dioramas. The atmosphere was great; very evocative. I really felt as though I were in an Istanbul gripped by modernization, like a fun-house mirror American Graffiti. Thinking back, I don’t think I’d seen an artistic diorama in a museum (just little historic dioramas in museums of natural history).

One diorama

When we arrived at the museum (no fancy entrance, just a little cut-away hole in the wall, a drive-by museum), we weren’t sure whether we wanted the audio guide. Well, thank God we got it. Each diorama had a number associated with a track, and the dioramas told a story of unrequited Istanbul love. Maybe the story would have been more coherent, had I read the book. But I liked it as it was: it was out of the question to listen to the narration for every diorama, and they weren’t sequential anyway. Instead, it felt like seeing someone’s memories, in the same fragmented way he might recall them.

Cats nearby

We also explored the neighborhood outside the museum, which had its own distinct feel: residential, old, filled with antiques. It slid down a steep hill towards the water, with a view of the sultan’s palace we’d visited the day before.

At the water itself, we considered visiting the modern art museum (but it was closed; we were also museumed out). Instead we visited the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque, which I think was actually my favorite mosque in the city: large enough to be grand, but still in regular use and somehow intimate feeling. We visited during a time of regular prayer, in late afternoon, with people coming in, praying for 5 or 10 minutes, and then hurrying home to their family. Meanwhile, we just waited quietly.

Inside the mosque

That night, we went around the corner of our hotel. The hotel was on a cute (noisy) side-street filled with cafes, restaurants, and people hanging out. It was a beautiful street, just not great for sleeping.

Nargile (hookah) cafe with huge second-floor area

After a forgettable dinner, we spent several hours smoking hookah and drinking endless cups of tea (near here). Early the next morning we took a cab back to the airport, to fly through Ukraine to the US. But for a little while, we snuggled up warm, cozy, and content on the roof of a nargile cafe on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Istanbul: The Sultan’s Palace


On our second-to-last day, we wanted to do the second-biggest tourist site in the city (after the Hagia Sophia): Topkapı Palace (home of the Ottoman Sultan). Nothing is more symbolic of the exotic Near East than the term “sultan”… the mere idea evokes images of Tin Tin or Indiana Jones adventuring in a foreign land.

The palace is adjacent to the archaeology museums we’d seen earlier, and directly behind the Hagia Sophia. By the entrance, as part of your admission, you get to see the Hagia Irene, or “Little Hagia Sophia,” sort of a dry-run for the Hagia Sophia itself. It’s a beautiful building, stark and mostly bare stone standing opposed to the ornate mosques and the Hagia Sophia itself.

Meanwhile, the palace is a huge complex of rooms, museums, mosques, harems, and so on. In the summer I can imagine it as serene and beautiful; but on an overcast February day, the unheated buildings were chilly, and the atmosphere gloomy and damp. I’ll be honest, it was a little bit of a disappointment.

The palace harem

I’ll make an analogy: when I was a kid, I got to spend a night on a World War II battleship as part of a Boy Scout trip. It was a wonderful experience, playing hide-and-seek and running around , immersed in the small of machine oil and steel. I think half or two third of the battleship was available to see, and it was like spending the night in a floating city: a three-dimensional maze of rooms and nooks and crannies, many of them recreating the. Since then, the only WWII ships I’ve visited only permit the visitor to see a straight path of glassed-off rooms and nothing more.

Well, the palace was similar. You get a sense of a big sprawling complex, but most of it is closed off. There’s an audioguide you can listen to, which is fine, and some signs on the walls. Most of the furnishings are gone (only 2-3 rooms were furnished), and they were doing repairs while we were there. In total, it feels like a sort of empty shell (and like I said, the weather didn’t improve things). So, was I disappointed in the experience? Yes. It was worth it, but it really could have been so much more rewarding.

Still, there’s an awful lot to see. In addition to the harem, many rooms, many mosques and so on, you can also see some small museums. I guess we’d seen quite a few museums, but I think the one here was my favorite: the Privy Chamber, which houses a great many Islamic relics. Half of these are fairly plausible: Muhammad’s tooth, a hair of his beard, swords, and so on. Could be legit.

Photo I got of David’s sword, before I realized photos weren’t allowed

The other half are completely implausible: the staff of Moses, the tea-kettle of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David (of David & Goliath fame). Alex thought they were a joke, and it was interesting to see the people around us, a broad swath of Muslims from different countries. Honestly, they didn’t seem very impressed.

See a panorama of the area:

Outside, shivering in the cold, we could look north into Karakoy (in fact, we could nearly see our AirBnb). Here we stood in a marbled courtyard, next to the sultan’s summer rooms: lighter, airier patios and porticoes that proved even colder than inside.

Sultan Mehmet with re-enactor

Leaving in early afternoon, we found an incredibly cheap little statue of Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer – the guy who finally ended the Roman empire in 1453. We got some great pictures with it – and it proved a wonderful gift for my father when we returned.

After some shopping in the various bazaars, but before heading back to Galata, Alex wanted to try the balık-ekmek, a fried fish sandwich (served from huge boats bobbing in the water with a spray of lemon juice). Cheap, and incredible fresh, the fish caught the same day. Mehmet had a bite as well (I abstained).

Trying rakı

That night, we also got our first taste of rakı, the traditional Turkish anise liquor – a sort of white licorice-flavored vodka. I thought it was pretty reasonable, at least as far as liquor goes, and we munched on bar nuts and pet cats in a warm little place right next to the Galata tower.

The guitarist was excellent

Finally, to close out the evening, we stopped across the street at Nardis to listen to some great jazz guitar.

Istanbul: Stepping into Asia


The Asian side of Istanbul may be the least ‘Asian’ part of Asian, but Alex and I still counted it as our third continent together. We spent most of the day there, and really had a good time. I think if I were to live in Istanbul it would likely be in the Asian side: it was quiet, local, and ironically felt more ‘European’ than the European side of the city!

We didn’t have any big plans: mostly we wanted to wander. After all, this was an area without large landmarks, the appeal was instead in the neighborhoods.

Winding our way up from the ferry terminal, we wound our way through a fish market; the roofs of the buildings nearly touching above us, and the lanes two people across, filled with seafood from the Bosphorus and Black Seas. Beyond, we broke out into a more open area, with a young vibe. Stepping down one a shop basement, Alex found, of all things, a Frida Kahlo purse; it is possibly still her favorite purse. I think it was $7 or $10.

Sharing a çiğ köfte wrap

Around the corner we stopped (here) by for what was my favorite street food: çiğ köfte. Mediterranean street food is limited for vegetarians, and this is a sort of soft seitan burrito (actually bulger germ), served with onions and lettuce. The sharp spice is perfectly balanced by a sweet tamarind-like chutney, and the whole wrap costs $1 or $2.

Kadıköy street cat

I really liked this area. It was less frantic and less touristic than the European side of the city, while still retaining its own unique feel. Kadıköy itself is a large hill surrounded with water on three sides, and as we hiked downhill, we reached the Sea of Marmara. There was a pretty park here, windswept and grey in February, and after taking in the sights, we started a broad loop back to the ferry terminal.

Random unique building

Maybe it sounds like we hadn’t done much, but I don’t think that’s fair. Both Alex and I love wandering. You can see more of what makes a country or city unique that way, staying away from the monuments. In particular, Istanbul was a huge culture shock for both of us, so there was a lot to take in. But, it’s impossible to narrate all those little thing. Huge street murals; the same 5 or 10 graffiti artists tagging buildings around the city. The ubiquitous cats lazing in nooks and crevices, or a huge fat dog devouring garbage on the street?

As we wound our way back towards the ferry, we stepped into a cafe along a local sort of acute-angle square for a few cups of tea. I loved these cafes, they were definitely among my favorite parts of the city. Sit down, and for fifty cents or a buck, and sip a nice, very sweet cup of tea, relaxing under the awning and watching the world pass by, or chatting with a friend. There’s no such opportunity in American cities, which rarely even have public squares. And while it’s always a temptation in European cities – in Germany, the Netherlands or Italy, squares and outdoor restaurants are common. But there the cost ($5 or more of food and drinks to claim the table) dissuades me. Here, on this odd little street corner, there were three cafes right next to each other, each filled with students just let out of school.

Now we were back into the market district; not the fish market but the antique markets. Wizened older folks leaning out of shop doors and younger men passing by swinging trays of tea; the shops with unnamed forgotten heirlooms layered with Ottoman dust.

In Istanbul, every block is new district and from antiques we moved into the consumer zone; basically a series of stall-sized shops that comprise a Turkish department store. Here, I finally found one of my few souvenirs from the trip: a backgammon board. I wasn’t looking for anything special; but I like gaming and backgammon is one of the oldest games in the world. It’s very popular in Turkey so it was a nice, cheap momento.

Alex found one of her souvenirs as well: a remaindered English-language sweater that said “Chillin Snoopy” (the peanuts character). We weren’t sure what it meant, but it’s an amazing sweater. And just like that, we left Asia, on the ferry, speeding across the dark Bosphorus waters towards the illuminated mosques of Europe.

Istanbul: Karaköy


After our first big day in Istanbul, we were eager to see more.

Cat with bird

Cat with bird

First, we checked out of our AirBnB (which was really closer to a hotel without a lobby). Its location was alright, and it even had a small balcony, but not much of a view. While waiting for Alex to style her hair, I stepped outside, looking up and down our street. There were a lot of cats, but I was distracted by the distant view of the water – and then I saw a cat walk down a cross street, bracketed by buildings as if in a movie, dragging an entire pigeon. It moved resolutely until it was out of frame, the bird flapping the whole time. What a weird start to the day.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Our first big stop of the day was the Grand Bazaar. I was pretty excited about this – you see it on travel shows, and the very name is evocative of Indiana Jones. It simply didn’t live up to expectations. The building is pretty cool, and filled with booths, but there just wasn’t much for sale: lanterns, carpets, lots of silk, lots of tacky jewelry, all of it extremely pricey. Alex wanted to get a silk scarf, so we stepped into a shop, where she resolutely negotiated down the price.

Book stalls outside the bazaar

Book stalls outside the bazaar

The bazaar was labrynthine and we left, disoriented, into a side courtyard. A threadbare canopy of leafless trees covered book stalls abutting the bazaar. These stalls sold discount books, all with colorful covers, mostly college and test prep books. I found it easy to resist the temptation to buy books I couldn’t read.


We continued past the bazaar in a straight line toward Galata, where our next AirBnB was located. I liked Galata quite a bit – it was near the vibrant main streets, had the same windy alleys and cozy shops, and also had lots of cafes with live music.

View from our AirBnB. Seriously!

View from our AirBnB. Seriously!

This was the best AirBnB location I’ve stayed in, over many years of travel. It was an entire apartment, just three blocks from the trendy music-cafe downtown. The apartment was huge, with a balcony that overlooked the Sea of Marmara, complete with double-wide rocking chair. And just $45 per night.

Street art directly across from our  apartment

Street art directly across from our apartment

Having dropped off our stuff, we left our new apartment – and right across the street was some pretty cool graffiti. There was actually great street art all over Istanbul. After all, there were enough abandoned buildings. As I was taking a picture, we heard a voice behind us. Turning around, we didn’t see anyone. But – there was a broad wooden grate pulled across what looked like a former storefront window, with a woman behind it – she was camping out there and doing street art in the neighborhood. We all talked – she was an artist, and I had been photographing her painting. It was a nice surprise to actually meet someone doing this, and I think she was flattered.

Great geometric arrangement from restaurant window

Great geometric arrangement from restaurant window

We set off down to the water to find a friend-of-a-friends restaurant. This was in the Karaköy neighborhood. I had an address I’d found online, but our maps were no good. We were getting lost. Finally, in an alley, the proprietor of an adjacent coffeeshop realized we were lost. We asked for directions and he consulted with his barber neighbor. They had some ideas, and we found our place – but it was shut down, I think for a week or two. This whole area was very hip – narrow cobblestone streets with vines overhead, outdoor bars, cafes, street art. We ended up eating at a restaurant where the waiter, I’m pretty sure, didn’t speak English. We managed to convey that we wanted vegetarian food, and that was it.

Traditional food

Traditional food

And the food was really good. Not anything I ever would have picked out for myself (beets, carrots in oil, and so on), but I really enjoyed it. Then we returned back to the coffeeshop. After all, they had given us directions. And I needed a haircut.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy for a guy to get a haircut, so the fact that the barber didn’t speak English wasn’t a big deal. He was a really nice guy, and we got coffee afterwards. The cafe was called Karanköy, and we made friends with the owner (we’d return a few days later).


That night we also made friends with some neighborhood cats. The cats in Istanbul weren’t feral, like strays in the US, so if sit down near them, the more adventurous will come to get scratched, or even sit on your lap. We frequently saw cat food outside. And it turns out, in Islam there’s a tradition of helping cats, though people don’t really own as many pets. Apparently while the prophet Muhammad was alive, a cat sat on his cloak, and he cut off the fabric rather than disturb it. So the cats are revered, and the dogs have it tougher in Turkey.

Nighttime view from our street towards Galata tower

Nighttime view from our street towards Galata tower

Istanbul: Arrival



One month before we arrived in Istanbul, an ISIL bomb killed 13 tourists. It exploded in the downtown tourist district, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the two biggest attractions.

What would you do? When we purchased our plane tickets, in December, we knew that Turkey could be dangerous. It was a destination for thousands of refugees, neighbors Syria, and was engaged in a war with two terrorist organizations. Oh, and a frightening demagogue had recently been elected. But I don’t think either of us had really considered what could happen. Waking up to news of the attack was a sobering reality check.

By continuing with our plans, we’d be putting our lives in danger. By canceling, we’d help the terrorists accomplish their goals – targeting a tourist site was a deliberate strategy. In the end, it came down to math: Istanbul is a city roughly the same size as New York City, 14 million people. One small terrorist attack, in a city so big… can you let yourself get scared?

View from our room

View from our room

Our plane touched down late at night, February 13. We were staying at an AirBnB/hotel close to downtown… and the whole experience was a shock. We’d arranged for a taxi with our host, and walking out of the airport we saw a guy with a sign for Alex. So we waited while he set up the taxi. We made it downtown no problem – I understood the rough route we’d follow from maps I’d seen online. But the windy downtown area, our car seemed to get lost. The driver didn’t speak English, and we spoke as much Turkish. Comparing the address, and using the host’s phone, we figured out where we were supposed to be.

Outside the Blue Mosque

Outside the Blue Mosque

The next morning, we got an early start. We were staying pretty close to the old town, but Istanbul was completely unlike other cities I’d visited. It was certainly more run-down. Even the tourist district, which was adjacent to us, had seen better days. Maybe during the Ottoman empire.

Street cats in Galata

Street cats in Galata

It took me about two days to adjust. Initially I felt nervous, unsafe, on edge. But it was just a matter of calibration before I felt comfortable – though never quite at home. Animals were everywhere. Stray cats roamed the streets, and were quite friendly – more on this later. Stray dogs frequented the tourist sites.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

The first site we visited was the Hagia Sophia. I’d been anticipating seeing it for two years, since we’d visited St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. During that time, I’d been gripped by the fear that somehow, after 1500 years, there would be an earthquake right before we arrived. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I was still underwhelmed. Hagia Sophia is ancient, and huge, and that’s impressive in itself. But the exterior is a frnakly ugly jumble of structures with pale faded paint, and there was extensive construction on the interior that interrupted the view and disturbed the ambiance. In the end, I can say that I enjoyed St Mark’s Basilica more.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Right across the plaza was the Blue Mosque, the most recognizable building in Istanbul. It really is beautiful, with a huge unified grey-blue exterior. I realized that I’d never been in a mosque before. Maybe as a kid. I didn’t remember it. There’s a whole process for entering the mosque: take off shoes and put them in a bag; for women, cover your hair. No shorts allowed. The inside felt sacred, like a church, but was also completely different.

Start with the carpeting. You probably haven’t been in a hall as big as the Blue Mosque with thick carpeting. The corporeal, musky smell of cleaner permeates the air. Looking up – you see millions of little tiles. There’s no idolatry in Islam, no visions of God or Muhammad or saints. Just Arabic script and ornate geometric patterns. It was beautiful and alien to me.

Fashion shoot!

Fashion shoot!

We crossed over the main bridge into Galata, reputed to be the ‘hip’ area of Istanbul, and wandered the streets. It was narrow, winding, steep. This area actually felt more touristy, probably due to the Galata tower, which presided over the whole peninsula. I think Alex’s biggest desire was to see the whirling dervishes, of the Mevlevi order of Sufis. This order held that spinning rapidly was a way to commune with God. The very term ‘whirling dervish’ evoked fond memories of old Tintin cartoons for me, which was appealing. On the other hand, I was expecting something of a tawdry tourist spectacle. We purchased tickets to the event, which was scheduled a few hours later, and continued to explore.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

We returned back to the Galata tower, which was a nice place to simply sit around. It’s scenic now, but it was the scene of heavy fighting during the seige of Istanbul, between Ottoman troops and Italian sailors.



I went in with absolutely no expectations or preconceptions beyond a hunch that the event would be commercial and touristy, but I think the dervish exhibition was surprising for both Alex and I. I believe it was more mundane than she was expecting: longer and less eventful. On the other hand, it felt a lot less tacky than I expected. In the end, I was glad I’d seen it. It was mesmerizing, about half an hour of choreography, all while spinning rapidly.

Street dog relaxes outside cafe

Street dog relaxes outside cafe

It was getting dark after this, and we crossed back to the main peninsula and wound through some back streets – streets of shuttered roll-up garage doors and pomegranate presses that felt vaguely menacing (but which was my favorite part of the city when we returned in daylight). Later, wandering, we passed an old Roman aqueduct and another mosque. On the way back, we stopped for some hookah in a wonderful old market-like hookah joint, filled with kaleidoscope lamps, heavy smoke and tasseled couches, before finally arriving back at our hotel.

And that was how we spent Valentine’s Day.